Alden Boon

Tattooist Sumithra Debi: Creating Art Beyond Skin Deep

26/10/2016

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Su cites Ael Lim and Elvin Yong as some of the local artists she looks up to. “They possess fervent passion and raw artistic talent. They inspire me to draw — not just ink on skin.” Another artist that has Su’s deepest respect is Vinnie Myers. “He does amazing work for breast cancer survivors and has dedicated his tattoo career to the cause.”

The nicest people are covered in tattoos   

Rugged and unfiltered describe the men present during Su’s formative years. The very people we’re conditioned to avert our gazes when regarded, and whose company we must eschew. Bad influences. “They’re a far cry from my companions in school. These guys were street-smart and had very strong characters,” says Su. “But they’re also very kind and surprisingly reserved. They made sure I had enough pocket money, and always checked in with me if I had eaten my meal. When clients stepped out of line, they would muscle up.”

 Back then, I was quite naive and didn’t know the male clients were making a pass. I started dressing up like a tomboy to pre-empt their advances.

Her uncle’s tattoo parlour was a stressful environment for an impressionable girl to grow up in. The 15-year-old Su became desensitised to police operations. “Many of our clients were in and out of prison or Drug Rehabilitation Centre. Officers would come to the store every few months, keeping an eye on them.”

Su kept her focus on the books. “Working for my uncle meant that I could have an income, and indulge in drawing. That was my focus: school and art.” She also made a very conscious decision to break the mould, to end the stereotype that tattooists are troublemakers.

Sumithra Debi Female Tattooist Singapore

Big shoes to fill      

“No one in school knew that I was working at my uncle’s shop as an assistant, or that I had started apprenticing as a tattoo artist,” Su recalls. “It wasn’t until my first interview with the Straits Times was published that my story came to light.”

Back in the day, a female tattooist was practically unheard of in Singapore. To thrive in this male-dominated industry, Su had to prove her grit and artistic flair. Her worth. She was not spared the rigours of apprenticeship, and had to earn her keep. That entailed housekeeping, coffee runs, needle soldering, and machine maintenance. “If a client walked in at 8pm and had a last-minute request, I had to stay till after my uncle was done tattooing. But there was a silver lining: I had his undivided attention, and I could witness his artistry up close.”

That Su managed to keep her second life under wraps is impressive. She is after all royalty: her grandfather is the highly-regarded Indra Bahadur, or Johnny Two Thumbs as his peers and clients affectionately called him.

“My grandfather was an autodidact, and he started his career as a tattoo artist just after the Japanese occupation.” Community service was what earned Su’s grandfather gradual respect amongst his clients. “He kept his nose to the grindstone, and as his business grew he would give back to the kampong community. He’d help someone who needed fees for his examinations. He was also called upon by Changi Prison to remove many prisoners’ home-tattooed gang symbols.”

To young females eager to join the industry, I’d say be headstrong and passionate. Be open to learning and don’t be afraid to showcase your creative talent. You will surpass the person who is solely in it for the money.

Living up to her grandfather’s name is no walk in the park for Su. “I felt the pressure when I first started out. I was third in line to continue the family trade. But with my development as an artist came my confidence. I found my footing. Now with the support of my mother and elder brother, I am even more confident of continuing my grandfather’s legacy.”

A few years ago, Su made a tribute journey to Shillong, Meghalaya, India, where her grandfather was born. The capital is untouched by time, untainted by modernity. “I learnt to appreciate the value of things we take for granted in Singapore, things like fridges and fresh food.”

The trip was also a visceral one, allowing Su to connect with his grandfather’s humble beginnings. By foot, he and his wife walked from the mountains and navigated the thick forest along manmade paths to reach a ship that would bear them to Singapore. “Times were dire and he had nothing to his name.”

It is Su’s hope to introduce her family’s next generation of tattooists to their roots. “I want to stir in them a passion — obsession, even — for art. I want them to embark on my family’s rite of passage: to learn from the bottom up.  I also want them to put others’ needs before their own, the same way my grandfather did.”

That indeed, is how she carries on her grandfather’s legacy.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.

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